For nearly a half-century, Hugh Keene witnessed – and participated in – the Maine credit union industry’s rise from a scattering of tiny cooperatives to an organized network of more than 60 financial service providers with $5.2 billion in total deposits and nearly 650,000 members.

Keene retired recently from Lewiston-Auburn-based Community Credit Union’s board of directors, which he joined in 1967. He served as chairman of the board from 1998 until his retirement.

An affable man with a warm smile and friendly demeanor, Keene taught science at Edward Little High School in Auburn for 25 years. He said a colleague urged him in 1962 to join a local credit union that served teachers, police and firefighters in Auburn. It was known as the Municipal Employees of Auburn Federal Credit Union.

Keene said he found the credit union’s cooperative, nonprofit business model appealing. Five years later, despite a lack of banking or financing experience, he joined its volunteer board of directors. At the time, the credit union had just 70 members and a single employee, Keene said. It offered paycheck direct deposits but not checking, he said.

“Back then, you had to go to the credit union to take out money,” Keene said.

Twenty-seven years later, the municipal credit union merged with Community Credit Union, which had served the parish of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston since the 1940s. Four years later, Keene was elected board chairman.

The credit union now has two branches, one in Lewiston and the other in Auburn. A third branch is scheduled to open in Turner this summer. It has total assets of $45.6 million, deposits of $40.2 million and 8,441 members.

NAVIGATING CHANGE – AND TURMOIL

Although Keene acknowledged he “had an awful lot to learn” when he joined the board, he learned to rely on what he calls the most important qualities for a board member: listening skills, intellectual curiosity, teamwork and a desire to serve the credit union’s members.

Through monthly meetings, the board of directors provides strategic guidance to the credit union’s management. The board offers suggestions, not mandates, he said.

“The management team says whether an idea is doable,” Keene said.

The board also chooses a new top executive, which it did in 2012 when Community Credit’s former president and CEO, Donna Steckino, stepped down after more than 30 years in the job. Ultimately, it chose current President and CEO Kerry Wood, the credit union’s former executive vice president.

Wood said Keene always ran his board meetings with efficiency and tact. His input was critical in the credit union’s decision to open a third branch, and he often initiated discussions about remaining competitive with other financial institutions by introducing new services such as mobile banking.

“Mr. Keene is the most gracious chair I’ve ever worked with,” Wood said. “He’s just a great guy – he will be sorely missed.”

Like all credit unions, Community Credit faced challenges related to the Great Recession, the housing-market slump and a spate of new federal banking regulations. It performed relatively well, she said, thanks to its frugality, careful risk-management and stalwart leadership from the board.

“We’ve weathered this economic turmoil pretty well,” Wood said. “Mr. Keene’s direction has kept the credit union strong.”

STARTING A MOVEMENT IN 1921

The history of credit unions in Maine goes back nearly 100 years, said John Murphy, president of the Maine Credit Union League. In North America, credit unions originated in Canada and came to Maine with the waves of Franco immigrants who moved here to work in mills and other industries in the early 20th century.

The first credit union in the state opened in 1921, Murphy said. It was founded as the Telephone Workers Credit Union of Maine, and its name was later changed to Infinity Federal Credit Union, which still exists today.

In the early days, most credit unions either served employees of a company or municipality, or members of a church. They were created as a means of countering the financial exploitation of workers and other members of the community, which was common at the time because there were few options for borrowing money, Murphy said.

“There were a lot of loan sharks operating that were charging astronomical interest rates,” he said.

Catholic churches, in particular, often formed their own credit unions, part of a broader movement among parishes to establish cooperatives for everything from farming to craft-making.

“One of the things most people don’t know about is how influential Catholic parishes were in forming credit unions,” said the Rev. Marc Caron of Saints Peter and Paul Church, now known as the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

The Lewiston-based St. Pierre Credit Union, founded in 1945 and a forerunner of Community Credit Union, originally served parishioners of that church.

In 1998, Congress passed the Credit Union Membership Access Act, which opened up credit union membership to a much broader segment of the community, said Murphy. The law was passed despite persistent lobbying efforts by the for-profit banking industry to keep credit union membership limited.

Now, just about anyone can join a credit union, Murphy said.

Most credit unions offer the same services as major banks, he said, including credit and debit cards, car loans, mortgages, financial planning and online and mobile banking.

Murphy said Keene made a significant contribution to the advancement of credit unions in Maine, volunteering thousands of hours over the 47 years he served on Community Credit’s board.

“Hugh deserves a tremendous amount of thanks from the credit union’s members,” he said. “He ought to be very proud of his accomplishments.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

canderson@pressherald.com

Twitter: @jcraiganderson